Voice. Every MFA instructor, lit agent, and editor wants a distinct, unique voice. How do you develop voice? Practice. It’s not as difficult or obscure as some writers make it out to be. Unfortunately, some writers have a better natural knack for this than others. It’s the voice in your head. It’s taking that voice, ripping it out, and then becoming a 1995 Cal Val girl like oh, my, god, what the fuck are you doing? You look so….I couldn’t even deal with this idiot. God, the way he’s looking at me. As if, yah, that’s not happening ever. Oh, hey, Molly. Yeah, this guy and then? WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU JUST SAY TO ME? Do you–hello, I’m talking to you. God, what a moron.
Anyways, what were we talking about? Chantelle’s on 5th street? Fuck yes, Momasas for everyone!
Bad stereotype aside, the elements of voice are there. Voice isn’t this mystic force that draws deep from within your soul. You just do it. The exercise I use to develop voice is the monologue. I have a character monologue for 500 words to get them on paper and then use that as a reference point down the line.
There are two broad camps when it comes to voice: author voice and character voice. I prefer character voice over my own voice. I’ve noticed a lot of agents and editors like the author’s voice, but I come from a background where I have to essentially make arguments for often nasty positions or political stances I don’t agree with. So I have to take on personas that aren’t myself.
Probably the most prolific examples I can think of at the moment are NK Jemisin and Anna Smith Sparks. Both women have distinct author voices. Jemisin has a literary chose your own adventure meta conversation with her readers voice. She speaks with and tells the story, the emotions of each character, but her prose ranges from economic to…
Come, love. There’s no need to worry.
This isn’t a world ending, rather, it’s a world beginning.
See that man on the horizon, with his arms outstretched toward the Obelisks? His name is not important. For now, all you need to know is he Alabaster. And once? Once he tried to break the world.
The world is churning. Father Moon will soon come and breath his last word.
And then you will play your part.
Jemisin does this much better than me, but her voice matches this crude imitation. It’s not just the word choice, it’s also the paragraph structure. It’s the emphasis on individual lines, the recollection narrative voice, the soft, almost go to sleep maternal tone that echoes throughout the narrative.
It’s slow, it’s like water dripping on the windowsill.
Where as Anna Smith Sparks’ voice is well…
Shit and guts. Guts on the mud, grabs a sword, hits a fool. Oh, this fucking wound is green and rotted. Rotting, rotting like a leech festering in his stomach. The star, the star so fair, so red, so good.
Jump, jumping to the next body, the next meat suit. Can’t find it. Where’s the battle? No, battle. Smacks him in the head, shirk, rips him down to the tongue. Slurp, hmm, meat in his stomach. Food for the leech, leech in his soul.
What are we made for? Shitting and fucking. The blood star, oh, it’s a fine star. Death, and seagulls, seagulls, scourge of the sea. Caw, caw, caw, tearing at me. Look up, see it burn bright. This is what we’re made for, he sings.
CAW, CAW, CAW, and he takes to the sky, with the leech-worm writhing in his mind.
It’s chaotic, you don’t get a lot of sensory details. She relies on gerunds and it gives it a messy flow. And that’s why she got her agent. That voice appealed to them. But the important thing to remember is this: voice can be taught, it can be learned. There’s no great secret, no MFA cookie-cutter certificate to teach you it. Voice is word choice, it’s paragraph flow, it’s thoughts, actions, and dialogue rolled together.
It’s the gestalt. And as I say, “Just do it.”